Ig Nobels: Prizes With Humor

Nobel Prize medal medallion generic

The Nobel prizes are announced each October and later awarded at a formal ceremony in Stockholm.

Also each October, at Harvard University, the somewhat lesser-known American version of the Nobels, the Ig Nobels, are announced and awarded in the August Sanders Theater.

But one quickly discerns subtle differences between the Nobel and the Ig Nobel ceremonies. A sign outside the Ig Nobel ceremony may give a hint: It reads: "Welcome to the 13th first Annual Etc Ig Nobel."

Awards were given to uncommon studies such as the Ig Noble prize in physics, which went to an analysis of forces required to drag sheep across various surfaces. It was an actual study conducted by an Australian engineer for the sheep-shearing industry.

"It's completely serious research," John Culvenor says. "I think scientists and most people are at their funniest when they're trying to be serious."

And all the participants of the Ig Nobel are completely serious.

"This year's Ig Noble economics prize is awarded to Karl Schwarzler and the country of Lichtenstein for making it possible to rent the entire country for weddings, bar mitzvahs and other gatherings," a presenter announced.

An Ig Noble was awarded to a research on chickens that prefer beautiful humans.

So, what did the Italian research scientist think when he received the big call from the Ig Nobel committee?

"It took a couple of hours to decide whether it was a good thing or a bad thing," Stefano Ghirlanda says. "But we decided [it was a] good thing … I think [the Nobel] get much less rejections than this prize."

Another difference is that the Ig Nobel doesn't give cash prizes to winners. And, some winners from halfway around the world get to the ceremony at their own expense to talk for just a minute.

If they go longer, they're rudely interrupted.

The Ig Nobels were created by Marc Abrams, who says a big problem is getting the audience to believe the research studies cited are real.

"That's how you know it qualifies — if it's something that seems like it could not possibly be [real]," Abrams says. "And yet, it really is that. It means it's a good candidate for an Ig."

Abrams is editor of a magazine called The Annals of Improbable Research, which publishes research studies such as "Kansas is Flatter than a Pancake."

His favorite studies are collected in his new book, "The Ig Nobel Prizes: The Annals of Improbable Research."

Some of the inventors listed in the book have invented such things as the plastic pink flamingo, which won the art prize a few years ago; a computer-based device that translates dog language into human language, which won the peace prize for bringing peace and harmony between the species; and the underease, which won a prize a few years ago for being an underwear with a removable charcoal filter.

This year, 10 winners were chosen from 5,000 entries to be presented their Ig Nobels by Nobel prize winners. Why would a distinguished scientist such as William Lipscomb agree to participate in such madness?

"I think they're fun [and] science is fun," he explains.

Marc Abrams keeps things lively on awards night with things like a nano-opera called "Atom and Eve: Eve a beautiful scientist and Atom an oxygen atom."

And there's the popular win-a-date contest.

To make sure no one leaves early, Abrams saves what he considers the best for last.

"The IgNoble Biology Prize is awarded to C.W. Moeliker for documenting the first recorded case of homosexual necrophilia in the mallard duck," Abrams declares.

"Nobody had ever seen and reported this behavior in mallards," says Moeliker. "I did."

For those who didn't win a Ig Nobel this year, better luck next year.